Abraham Barak Salem

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Abraham Barak Salem (1882–1967) was an Indian nationalist and Zionist,[1] a lawyer and politician, and one of the most prominent Cochin Jews of the twentieth century. A descendant of meshuchrarim,[citation needed] he was the first Cochin Jew to become an attorney. He practised in Ernakulam, where he eventually used satyagraha to fight the discrimination among Jews against his people. An activist in the trade union and Indian national causes, he later was attracted to Zionism. After visiting Palestine in the 1930s, he later helped arrange the migration of most Cochin Jews to Israel by 1955. He stayed in Kochi for the remainder of his life.

Early life[edit]

Salem was born in 1882 to a Jewish family in Cochin (Kingdom of Cochin ), then a princely state in British India and now part of the Indian state of Kerala. His family were regarded as meshuchrarim, a Hebrew word used, sometimes neutrally and sometimes with derogatory intent, to denote a manumitted slave or her descendants. The Paradesi [foreign] Jews of Cochin had arrived there since the 16th-century following the expulsion of Jews from Spain. They discriminated against the meshuchrarim in their community who were relegated to a subordinate position in the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin. Given the cultural differences between them, the Paradesi (or "White") Jews and the older communities of Malabari Jews also maintained ethnic distinctions for centuries, which became associated historically with differences in skin colour.

Brought up by his mother, Salem attended the Maharaja's College in Ernakulam. He moved to Chennai to earn his Bachelor of Arts degree, becoming the first university graduate among the meshuchrarim.[2] Whilst in Chennai he also earned his law degree, the first Jew from Cochin to do so,[3] before returning to practise as a lawyer in the Cochin Chief Court in Ernakulam.


The Malabari Jews had seven places of worship; the White Jews had one, the Paradesi Synagogue, which for centuries had been barred to those whom they considered impure. The contemporary historian Edna Fernandes calls it "a bastion of white purity".[4] The White Jews practised endogamous marriage, which excluded both the meshuchrarim and Malabari Jews (who also practised endogamy that excluded the other groups). The meshuchrarim had to sit in the back of the synagogue or outside. The separation resembled Indian discrimination against lower castes, which was sometimes repeated in Christian churches in India.

Salem fought against this discrimination by boycotting the synagogue for a time. He used satyagraha (or non-violent protest) as a means of combating discrimination within the community. This led some people to later refer to him as the "Jewish Gandhi".[5] By the mid-1930s, Mandelbaum reported that many of the old taboos had fallen, reflecting wider changes in Indian society as well.[6]

Salem served in the Legislative Council in the princely state of Cochin from 1925 to 1931 and again from 1939 to 1945. A supporter of the nascent trade union movement in Kerala and an active Indian nationalist, at the end of 1929 he attended the Lahore session of the Indian National Congress. It passed a resolution calling for complete independence from the Raj.[3]

After visiting Palestine in 1933, Salem was attracted to the Zionist cause. After Indian independence, he worked to promote aliyah to Israel among the Cochin Jews. In 1953, he visited Israel to negotiate on behalf of Indian Jews who wanted to migrate. This also helped to diminish the divisions among the Cochin Jews.[7] After emigration they were all considered foreigners to Israel, and many struggled to assimilate.

Although most of Cochin's ancient Jewish community eventually left for Israel by 1955 (and, in the case of many White Jews, for North America and England), Salem lived in Cochin until his death in 1967. He was buried in the White Jewish cemetery in Jew Town in Cochin.


  • The road adjacent to the White Jewish Cemetery in Kochi was named after Salem.[3]


  1. ^ PANEL 39: Nationalisms and their Impact in South Asia[permanent dead link] - European Association of South Asian Studies
  2. ^ Katz 2000:67
  3. ^ a b c T. V. R. Shenoy, "The Jewish Gandhi and Barack Obama", Rediff, 8 September 2008
  4. ^ Fernandes 2008:155
  5. ^ "A Kochi dream died in Mumbai", Indian Express, 13 December 2008
  6. ^ Fernandes 2008:164
  7. ^ Chiriyankandath 2008:21


  • James Chiriyankandath (2008). "Nationalism, religion and community: A. B. Salem, the politics of identity and the disappearance of Cochin Jewry", Journal of Global History, 3, pp 21–42, doi:10.1017/S1740022808002428
  • Edna Fernandes. The Last Jews of Kerala. Portobello Books, 2008.
  • Katz, Nathan (2000). Who are the Jews of India?. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.